Parties fail to take advantage of political opening

The violence and disruptions of this past weekend, coupled with the most recent address by the Tunisian prime minister, offered an opportunity for political parties to come forward and reach out to voters. By all measures, they are failing the test.

As I noted earlier this week, Prime Minister Essebsi’s speech prompted all of the major political parties in Tunisia to take action. Some condemned his speech (Ennahdha), others lauded it (PDP, Akef). In the end, though, what could have been an opening, has turned into more infighting, and less attention to reaching out to the average Tunisian voter.

Ennahdha took the opportunity to fight back against the Prime Minister, insisting that the government had defiled religious establishments by looking for protesters within mosques in Menzel Bourguiba and Tunis. This played to their base, but it also showed that they were not ready to focus attention exclusively on the next two months of political campaigning and elections.

On the other hand, the centrist parties quickly adopted the narrative of the Prime Minister to condemn violence (which they were quick to subtly blame on religious extremists, and not elements close to the former regime). However, after an almost unanimous vote in the transitional council on political party organizations and campaign finance, the PDP quickly backed away from the vote and accused the chairman of the council of playing political games. This was seen as a cynical move to protect their corporate donations. Adding insult to injury, they walked away, walked back, and then insisted that the law is ok, but just needs to be amended.

The centrist parties organized a rally in central Tunis today, ostensibly against violence, that was mostly an opportunity to distinguish themselves from Ennahdha. The event was poorly attended (I guessed around 500, though other sources placed the turnout at about 3,000), given the number of parties represented.

I think that it is highly probably that this kind of game playing from all sides is one of the biggest reasons for the apathy for voter registration. As of today, less than 400,000 Tunisians have registered to vote out of 7 million voters. They have until August 2 to complete the process in order to vote in this fall’s elections. Certainly there are other reasons for the poor turnout, but the actions of the political parties this week have not helped earn the trust of Tunisian voters.

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Decried by activists, Tunisian PM’s speech spurs parties to action

I wrote yesterday about the continuing disorder and violence in Tunisia over the weekend, provoked by activists attempting to reoccupy the Kasbah on Friday. The Tunisian Prime Minister, Béji Caïd Essebsi, responded to this violence in a speech on Monday that upset activists and placed the blame squarely on extremist political parties.

Essebsi had three goals in his speech, by most accounts he has succeeded on two of them, and the third is uncertain.

First, Essebsi wanted to create a cleavage between those who are mostly concerned with preserving the goals of the revolution and those that want to move on to the elections and getting the country back to work. Polls show that the vast majority of Tunisians are glad to have overthrown the regime, but they want to move on and the top priority should be jobs, security, and the economy. However, many activists have been upset at the slow pace of reforms, in particular in the security apparatus and over the weekend, attacks on journalists. Apart from the twittersphere, Essebsi wins this point easily with the masses.

Second, he wanted to bring legitimate political parties back to the table at the transitional commission (la Haute Instance pour la réalisation des objectifs de la révolution) in order to set the stage for the political campaigns and the elections. In tandem, he tried to exclude political parties that disrupt the process and call into question the legitimacy of the commission’s work. The latter point was aimed at Ennahda and other political parties who had recently withdrawn from the commission in an attempt to increase their representation.

The response today has been swift from all sides. Ennahda immediately held a press conference in which they lined up with the PM’s ideas about avoiding violence at all costs and making sure that Tunisia stayed on track for a peaceful and fair election. The main trade union (UGTT) also voiced its support for unity and non-violence. Meanwhile, the centrist party Afek Tunis smelled blood and subtly called out Ennahda and the far left parties for their lack of respect for the transitional commission and the trade unions and aligned parties for the continued sit-ins in the country.

Essebsi raised the stakes for those parties who could benefit by saying that on one hand they wanted the transition to go well, but on the other did not want to participate in the agreed upon forum in which to participate. With over 60 percent of Tunisians not having made up their minds on who to vote, this is another win for Essebsi among all except the partisans.

Finally, he wanted to prepare voters for a potentially tumultuous run-up to the October 23 elections by essentially telling them to stay the course, ignore the extremists, and let the police do their work. The question is how long Tunisians will accept the  economic and security situation.

The speech was well-timed and spoke over the cacophony of the political chattering classes. For the time being, he seems to have reached the Tunisian people and garnered support for the transitional process at its most needed time, and he has brought the political parties with him. The risk, as I mentioned yesterday, is that if at some point there is a true split between the government and centrist parties on one side, and Ennahda and perhaps the far left on the other, there could be an added destabilization of the political process leading to further unrest in the country. Furthermore, while his call for calm has been accepted by all sides, one minor event could set things back considerably. Only time will tell.

Islamism in Tunisia? Polls avoiding the hard questions

An Islamic revolution in Tunisia just like Iran? The decline of women’s rights and the end of the liberal Tunisian model? If one believes the latest public opinion polls coming out of Tunisia showing the Islamist party, Ennadha, with a strong lead over its rivals, you might think Tunisia is on the path away from its secular beginnings.

As reported by by the French magazine Nouvel Observateur, the latest Sigma poll, a private polling firm based in Tunisia, shows Ennadha with almost 17% support. The next closest rival, the PDP, receives just under 10% support. Ennadha’s support jumped 2 percent since the May survey.

What are the implications for the October elections?

Unfortunately, there is not enough data to say, and the data that exists, can be interpreted in many different ways.

The Sigma survey asked participants whether they were optimistic about their country (they are). It asked them about their fears (mostly economic and security related). And it asked them to identify their political leaders. And that’s it.

This follows in the footsteps of a poll conducted in April by the International Republican Institute, an American democracy promotion organization funded largely by U.S. taxpayers. This poll similarly avoided asking in-depth questions of its participants that would provide answers toward what parties the electorate might support. It did, however, ask some questions about the role of religion in politics, and it asked participants to identify the major issues confronting Tunisia.

Taking all of these data points together, one could infer that survey respondents think that the Ennadha party represents the best way forward to address the major issues facing Tunisia – jobs and unemployment. But that would be a large leap that the data does not necessarily support. Hypothetically, it’s possible, that the 17% of voters that support Ennadha are really jazzed about the party’s stance on foreign direct investment (which 15 percent of voters identified as important in the IRI survey).

What’s missing is any data that would show why voters might be sympathetic to one party or another. Future polls could address this by asking participants to identify what a particular party stands for. This would allow us to see what kind of ceiling of support a particular party might have.

The other main finding from these surveys is that voters are still unfamiliar with most of the party leaders, and those they are familiar with, are not particularly popular. Ennadha leader Rached Ghannouchi is only supported by 8% of the latest survey’s participants and the only leader with double digit support is the octogenarian Beji Caid Essebsi, who is the leader of the country’s transition and not a member of any political party.

In other words, the polls show neither what political platforms Tunisians identify with nor the leaders they identify with – making it extremely difficult to infer real answers from them.

One final point, there has been a growing trend to criticize the polls that are being conducted here with a call that they be regulated. I expect that some of this has to do with the problems I have outlined above. However, I think that some of these calls are based on the misguided view that the government needs to continue to interfere with the political process, otherwise extreme elements might be brought to the scene. In my view, this is the wrong direction for the country. Rather, efforts should be redoubled in the press to emphasize only quality data by reputable firms.